Social Games Equal Falling in Love

06/28/2010
Courtesy of Flickr's alykat

Love Mark

Whether it’s confirmation bias (see a very entertaining article on this topic) or not, it seems that since we announced the launch our latest Facebook game called Healthseeker — articles that have to do with either modifying behaviour through gameplay or that explore the close connection between the power of social networks and brain activity — just keep popping up in my inbox.  In the case of the latest article confirming what I already believe to be true, it was Ayogo’s Quality Assurance Lead David Thomas who kindly alerted me to its existence. (Thanks Dave!)

Obviously, I like it when well-researched, notable authors confirm my beliefs. One of which is that good game mechanics can be designed to engage players in adopting healthier behaviours and can therefore be used to do good things.  Another has to do with games triggering evolutionarily significant brain activity.

That’s why I was so intrigued with Adam Penenberg’s latest article for Fast Company. It’s titled Social Networking Affects Brains Like Falling in Love and it was a head-nodder from start to finish. He explores the role of oxytocin in influencing people’s behaviour in general, and how social networking actually triggers the release of this generosity-trust chemical in our brains, in particular.

Also known as the cuddle-drug, the hormone acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain and is responsible for things like forming bonds between a mother and a child. Why it’s more interesting is because of neuroeconomist Paul Zak’s research, which now proves that it doesn’t only have scientific, but also socioeconomic significance as well. Zak, who is the leading researcher behind the oxytocin movement says that the hormone could influence and encourage families, communities, and societies to engage in all sorts of “transactions” that we never thought of it enabling before.

In the article, besides taking part in a number of experiments to see if and when oxytocin levels were raised, and although based on only a one-person study (Penenberg himself), the author found that oxytocin was released while he was using Twitter. Moreover, the study implied a relationship between higher oxytocin levels and reciprocative social action. Perhaps this explains why the longer I spend reading my friend’s tweets, the greater my impulse to reply. (Must… Look… Away… From… Twitter… Feed…)

If social networking may increase a person’s oxytocin levels, thereby heightening feelings of trust and generosity, then it makes sense that we can optimize social games to enhance this effect, doesn’t it? With Healthseeker, we believe simply seeing a display of the small actions your friends take in the game can have a big impact on your own motivation. The same can be applied to other purposes that need deep motivation, such as patient adherence or disease management. Of course, this power can be used for purely economic purposes. As Penenberg asks,

“What if corporations come to understand human behaviour and its root mechanisms so well that they can manipulate our biochemistry to trick us into buying more?”

Considering Facebook’s regular attempt at creating a “social advertising” platform, it’s clear that there are plenty of people looking to answer that question.

Furthermore, according to the article, increased oxytocin reduces stress hormones. Could one design a game that, for example, reduces the risk of heart attack and stroke (which can be associated with lack of social support)? If you’ve been reading our blog, you know that we’re very interested in the effects of game play on brain chemistry. It’s a very intriguing idea, to create games that have the effect of making you more peaceful, more calm? That’s probably something we can all use more of in this day and age, don’t you think?

Despite some neuroeconomic critics, many in the industry such as the author of Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely (who is also a behavioural economist) see Zak’s work on oxytocin as valuable. It allows for a more clear picture of the mechanisms that drive human behaviour. Something we can all learn from. What do you think? Send an email to me: michael [at] ayogo dot com or leave a comment.